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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXII. The Old Call of the River
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|When spring came, with budding life and quickening impulses; when the
trees in the parks began to show a hint of green, the Amazonian idea
developed afresh, and the would-be coca-hunter prepared for his
expedition. He had saved a little money--enough to take him to New
Orleans--and he decided to begin his long trip with a peaceful journey
down the Mississippi, for once, at least, to give himself up to that
indolent luxury of the majestic stream that had been so large a part of
his early dreams.
The Ohio River steamers were not the most sumptuous craft afloat, but
they were slow and hospitable. The winter had been bleak and hard.
"Spring fever" and a large love of indolence had combined in that drowsy
condition which makes one willing to take his time.
Mark Twain tells us in Life on the Mississippi that he "ran away," vowing
never to return until he could come home a pilot, shedding glory. This
is a literary statement. The pilot ambition had never entirely died; but
it was coca and the Amazon that were uppermost in his head when he
engaged passage on the Paul Jones for New Orleans, and so conferred
immortality on that ancient little craft. He bade good-by to Macfarlane,
put his traps aboard, the bell rang, the whistle blew, the gang-plank was
hauled in, and he had set out on a voyage that was to continue not for a
week or a fortnight, but for four years--four marvelous, sunlit years,
the glory of which would color all that followed them.
In the Mississippi book the author conveys the impression of being then a
boy of perhaps seventeen. Writing from that standpoint he records
incidents that were more or less inventions or that happened to others.
He was, in reality, considerably more than twenty-one years old, for it
was in April, 1857, that he went aboard the Paul Jones; and he was fairly
familiar with steamboats and the general requirements of piloting. He
had been brought up in a town that turned out pilots; he had heard the
talk of their trade. One at least of the Bowen boys was already on the
river while Sam Clemens was still a boy in Hannibal, and had often been
home to air his grandeur and dilate on the marvel of his work. That
learning the river was no light task Sam Clemens very well knew.
Nevertheless, as the little boat made its drowsy way down the river into
lands that grew ever pleasanter with advancing spring, the old "permanent
ambition" of boyhood stirred again, and the call of the far-away Amazon,
with its coca and its variegated zoology, grew faint.
Horace Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones, then a man of thirty-two, still
living (1910) and at the wheel,--[The writer of this memoir interviewed
Mr. Bixby personally, and has followed his phrasing throughout.]--was
looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a
slow, pleasant voice say:
Bixby was a clean-cut, direct, courteous man.
"Good morning, sir," he said, briskly, without looking around.
As a rule Mr. Bixby did not care for visitors in the pilot-house. This
one presently came up and stood a little behind him.
"How would you like a young man to learn the river?" he said.
The pilot glanced over his shoulder and saw a rather slender, loose-
limbed young fellow with a fair, girlish complexion and a great tangle of
"I wouldn't like it. Cub pilots are more trouble than they're worth.
A great deal more trouble than profit."
The applicant was not discouraged.
"I am a printer by trade," he went on, in his easy, deliberate way.
"It doesn't agree with me. I thought I'd go to South America."
Bixby kept his eye on the river; but a note of interest crept into his
"What makes you pull your words that way?" ("pulling" being the river
term for drawling), he asked.
The young man had taken a seat on the visitors' bench.
"You'll have to ask my mother," he said, more slowly than ever. "She
pulls hers, too."
Pilot Bixby woke up and laughed; he had a keen sense of humor, and the
manner of the reply amused him. His guest made another advance.
"Do you know the Bowen boys?" he asked--"pilots in the St. Louis and New
"I know them well--all three of them. William Bowen did his first
steering for me; a mighty good boy, too. Had a Testament in his pocket
when he came aboard; in a week's time he had swapped it for a pack of
cards. I know Sam, too, and Bart."
"Old schoolmates of mine in Hannibal. Sam and Will especially were my
"Come over and stand by the side of me," he said. "What is your name?"
The applicant told him, and the two stood looking at the sunlit water.
"Do you drink?"
"Do you gamble?"
"Do you swear?"
"Not for amusement; only under pressure."
"Do you chew?"
"No, sir, never; but I must smoke."
"Did you ever do any steering?" was Bixby's next question.
"I have steered everything on the river but a steamboat, I guess."
"Very well; take the wheel and see what you can do with a steamboat.
Keep her as she is--toward that lower cottonwood, snag."
Bixby had a sore foot and was glad of a little relief. He sat down on
the bench and kept a careful eye on the course. By and by he said:
"There is just one way that I would take a young man to learn the river:
that is, for money."
"What do you charge?"
"Five hundred dollars, and I to be at no expense whatever."
In those days pilots were allowed to carry a learner, or "cub," board
free. Mr. Bixby meant that he was to be at no expense in port, or for
incidentals. His terms looked rather discouraging.
"I haven't got five hundred dollars in money," Sam said; "I've got a lot
of Tennessee land worth twenty-five cents an acre; I'll give you two
thousand acres of that."
"No; I don't want any unimproved real estate. I have too much already."
Sam reflected upon the amount he could probably borrow from Pamela's
husband without straining his credit.
"Well, then, I'll give you one hundred dollars cash and the rest when I
Something about this young man had won Horace Bixby's heart. His slow,
pleasant speech; his unhurried, quiet manner with the wheel, his evident
sincerity of purpose--these were externals, but beneath them the pilot
felt something of that quality of mind or heart which later made the
world love Mark Twain. The terms proposed were agreed upon. The
deferred payments were to begin when the pupil had learned the river and
was receiving pilot's wages. During Mr. Bixby's daylight watches his
pupil was often at the wheel, that trip, while the pilot sat directing
him and nursing his sore foot. Any literary ambitions Samuel Clemens may
have had grew dim; by the time they had reached New Orleans he had almost
forgotten he had been a printer, and when he learned that no ship would
be sailing to the Amazon for an indefinite period the feeling grew that a
directing hand had taken charge of his affairs.
From New Orleans his chief did not return to Cincinnati, but went to St.
Louis, taking with him his new cub, who thought it fine, indeed, to come
steaming up to that great city with its thronging water-front; its levee
fairly packed with trucks, drays, and piles of freight, the whole flanked
with a solid mile of steamboats lying side by side, bow a little up-
stream, their belching stacks reared high against the blue--a towering
front of trade. It was glorious to nose one's way to a place in that
stately line, to become a unit, however small, of that imposing fleet.
At St. Louis Sam borrowed from Mr. Moffett the funds necessary to make up
his first payment, and so concluded his contract. Then, when he suddenly
found himself on a fine big boat, in a pilot-house so far above the water
that he seemed perched on a mountain--a "sumptuous temple"--his happiness